The recent High Street Report is a welcome addition to thinking on the future of the high street, but more consideration is needed on place making, writes Richard Laming
It is pleasing to see place-based approaches given such prominence in the government-commissioned High Street Report, as well as a recognition that no two towns are the same. The call for locally-specific strategies, and Government playing an enabling role to remove obstacles to town centre regeneration, is eminently sensible.
We also support the evidence-led approach outlined in the report and the use of survey-based data to reveal what people want from their town centres is also a good move. The focus on our town centres serving their surrounding catchments is also a helpful reminder that we should be focusing on whole places, rather than viewing our high streets in splendid isolation. Understanding the catchment is essential to devising appropriate, individual strategies for town centres.
However, there are some more frivolous measures contained in the report. At best the ‘National High Street Perfect Day’ will be a profile-raising exercise. In our view, its inclusion is at the expense of the bigger issues around the environmental quality of our town centres.
More consideration needs to be given to the longer-term stewardship of town centres and the public realm, which is often neglected in the face of the parlous state of local authority finances. So often, even when a great new public space or public realm has been invested in, the lack of long-term stewardship actively detracts from place quality, which in turn can harm perceptions of town centres.
The expert panel highlights that planning provides one of the key tools to enable local communities to shape and deliver the high street agenda. However, it resorts to generalities when it talks about “streamlining the planning process”. This is a missed opportunity.
It would be beneficial to see the panel explore the potential in blending land uses – especially in light of proposed new permitted development rights allowing buildings to be demolished for residential and the conversion of premises for alternative uses.
Consideration about how town centres can contribute to addressing the housing crisis, the role of density in optimising contribution and the need for community infrastructure to serve and sustain new residential populations in town centres would also have been welcome.
There are also important points around the viability of different land uses in town centres – and the need to ensure town centres continue to act as key areas of employment – which the report did not address.
Overall, the report is a welcome addition to thinking on the future of the high street with many good recommendations. On planning and place making matters, however, more consideration is needed.